A Place to Play

Santa Fe County's South Meadows open space plan paid little attention to building that housed radioactive material

The large field framed by South Meadows and Airport Road in southwest Santa Fe, where families have strolled to watch sunsets for generations, seemed like a perfect place for the county to develop a natural playground, with life-sized Lincoln Logs replacing plastic slide-and-swing fare.

Sure, the Eberline Instruments facility happened to be adjacent to the open field, but the county says it had considered the possible presence of radioactive material at the old plant and never found cause for concern—not even after the company ran afoul with nuclear waste regulations or after the state removed a steel drum of the stuff from the site just last year.

The idea that the county should buy the property and turn it into a public area, complete with hiking trails, a dog park, a community garden, and an outdoor classroom and theater for students, originated with members of the Tiempos Lindos Homeowners Association, whose homes surround the property. There are five nearby schools: Ramirez Thomas Elementary, Sweeney Elementary, Chavez Elementary, Ortiz Middle School and Capital High School.

Helen Wunnicke, who worked in the civil engineering field and moved next to the South Meadows open space in 1996, applied at the persuasion of her neighbors for a grant from the county's open space and trails division to purchase properties at 3740 and 3600 South Meadows Road. She had a leading role in convincing the county to purchase the properties from two private citizens for a little over $1 million in 2001.

"I was very proud," says Wunnicke. "The criteria were a variety of things, [like] historical import, room for open space for families. The fact is, in southwest Santa Fe, it's an underserved community that tends to get neglected, and there is no … open space there. And so we were determined to save this land."

Wunnicke had already moved from Santa Fe to Denver by the time the purchase took place, but she still owns property here. She says she wasn't aware that radioactive materials had been stored at the Eberline plant for years.

"My personal knowledge of Eberline is that it's just kinda like a scary ghost up there on the hill," she says. "It's really unacceptable in a heavily populated area that's growing further, that's close to schools."

Paul Olafson, the director of the county's Growth Management Department, tells SFR that the county did a standard environmental assessment before it purchased two properties.

"It was noted there was no regulatory information indicating there was any contamination from that site to our property," Olafson says. "We have not had any new information from any regulatory agencies at this time."

Throughout the planning process, neighbors met with architects and members of the county open space and trails division to discuss plans for the South Meadows space. Present at one community meeting on Sept. 12, 2012, was Stefan Hrabosky, the radiation safety officer for Thermo Fisher Scientific who, a year later, would write the state about a plan to transport radioactive material from the Eberline facility to Los Alamos. That plan would eventually cost Thermo Fisher around $6 million after the New Mexico Environmental Department found the company to be in violation of several regulations for maintaining americium-241 and other toxic nuclides.

It's unclear if Hrabosky spoke up at the community meeting, or whether he was involved any further with the county's plans to landscape the South Meadows space. Two residents who were there that day, Johnny Ray Smith and Tiempos Lindos HOA president Joanna Garcia, tell SFR they do not recall Hrabosky introducing himself to residents at the meeting.

However the county decides to deal with the possibility of radioactivity near the South Meadows field, it will have to figure out what to do on an already-stretched budget. Officials set aside about $400,000 for initial planning, but county Open Space and Trails Division Senior Planner Maria Lohmann says there are currently no plans to fund the development or construction of the park.

For Helen Wunnicke, who plans to move back to her Santa Fe home in a few years after her husband retires, the fact that everybody seemed to overlook the nuclear facility throughout an otherwise rigorous planning process speaks to a problematic lack of institutional memory.

"Eberline—they've got tons of dough, tons of lawyers, all this stuff," she says. "And they have an agenda, and they just are focused on the agenda. And the public has to re-fight the fight again and again and again, because there isn't institutional memory."

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